Scores of volunteers fanned out across Modesto on Sunday as the search intensified for Laci Peterson, the expectant mother who disappeared Christmas Eve from her La Loma neighborhood home.
Since Dec. 25, more than 600 volunteers have distributed leaflets, answered telephones, walked and rewalked portions of East La Loma Park and Tuolumne River Regional Park trying to find any trace of the 27-year-old woman, who is 8 1/2 months pregnant.
Despite that herculean effort, investigators reported no significant breaks in the case and apparently were no closer to finding her.
"It's very frustrating," said Modesto police Sgt. Ron Cloward, who is heading the search. "It's like looking for a needle in a haystack and no one can tell you where in the haystack they dropped it.
"We really don't have anything substantial to go on. (But) we're going to keep searching until we find her."
At the close of a Sunday afternoon news briefing, Dennis Rocha, Peterson's father, pleaded tearfully before a bank of TV cameras for his daughter's safe return.
At one point, Rocha directed his comments to the person or persons who might know what happened to his daughter.
"Take the money," he said. "Take the money and go. Just bring back my daughter unharmed."
The reward for information leading to Peterson's safe return has swelled to $500,000.
Also Sunday, police officers began questioning registered sex offenders and parolees with a history of violence who live near the La Loma neighborhood where Peterson's home is located.
"We developed a list of about 50," Cloward said, "and have talked to 29 so far. We want to know who they might have been with and where they were on Christmas Eve."
Outpouring of volunteers
A steady stream of volunteers showed up throughout the day Sunday at the Red Lion Hotel on Sisk Road, where Peterson's family and friends have established a command center to assist in the search.
"It keeps you going," said Stacey Boyers, who helped coordinate volunteers. "It keeps you thinking positive."
Boyers, who said she has known Peterson since both were in the third grade, is among a core group of 15 to 20 who have staffed the family command center since it opened Dec. 26.
"It's amazing how this community has come together to help us," said Boyers, who helped log in volunteers Sunday. "We've had 50 sign up today and probably more than 600 in the last few days."
Cloward said Sunday's search focused on Modesto neighborhoods generally north of Scenic Drive and east of McHenry Avenue.
At the police command post in the park, Cloward passed out maps to volunteers, who then walked specific neighborhoods seeking clues.
Joseph McDonald, a 34-year-old Patterson resident, was among the volunteers who walked Modesto neighborhoods.
"This is just something people should do," he said. "I've got a family myself. It's a no-brainer."
Manuel Moreno of Empire was another volunteer who showed up at East La Loma Park.
"God told me to come out here and help," the 20-year-old man said. "She's got a family who's worried about her."
Jack Marks, 38, of Modesto and his buddy John Adams, 56, also of Modesto, brought their horses to East La Loma Park.
Cloward had the men revisit some hard-to-reach areas along Dry Creek.
"This is a tragedy in the community," Marks said. "I'm just trying to give something back. Maybe, if we get more people out here helping, she's going to turn up."
Full search resumes
Cloward said a helicopter search team, police divers and officers on horseback would be back on the job today.
The divers and horse patrol needed some rest and were given the day off Sunday, Cloward said, while the helicopter was scheduled for routine maintenance.
Later today, Cloward said divers would investigate three bodies of water west of Modesto adjoining Highway 132. Those bodies of water are on wetlands in the vicinity of Mape's Ranch.
Detective Doug Ridenour, at a Sunday afternoon news briefing, said there was no significant news -- no breakthrough -- to report in the search for Peterson. He called on anyone who may have seen her to come forward.
"She didn't just vanish. No one just vanishes," Ridenour said after the news briefing. "I believe there's someone out there who saw something or who knows where she (Peterson) may be."
Peterson is described as 5-foot-1 and weighing about 140 pounds. She has brown, shoulder-length hair and a sunflower tatoo on her left ankle. She was wearing black pants and a white pullover shirt on the day she disappeared.
No concrete leads
Although police have received about 340 calls on a special tips line, none has resulted in a "concrete lead" at this point. Ridenour said investigators were continuing to follow up on those deemed credible.
The last person known to have seen Peterson on Christmas Eve is her 30-year-old husband, Scott Peterson.
Scott Peterson told police he left home the morning of Dec. 24 to go fishing in the Bay Area and said his wife was going to nearby East La Loma Park to walk the family's dog.
Later that day, a neighbor found the couple's golden retriever -- with its leash still attached -- wandering in the neighborhood and put the dog in the Peterson's yard. The neighbor didn't realize that anything might be amiss.
Ridenour said investigators traveled to the Berkeley marina where Scott Peterson said he went on Dec. 24 but did not turn up any "conclusive" evidence.
While police insist Scott Peterson is not a suspect in his wife's disappearance, Ridenour said nobody has been ruled out.
Laci Peterson's family will hold a candlelight vigil for the missing woman on New Year's Eve. The vigil, which begins at 4:30 p.m., will be at East La Loma Park.
Bee staff writer Michael G. Mooney can be reached at 578-2384 or firstname.lastname@example.org